Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Book Reviews

Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ

David B. Garner, P&R books, 2016, 366pp, £19.56 (Amazon) / £7.91 (Kindle)

Reading Sons in the Son had an effect on me similar to my experience of first reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God; John Stott’s Cross of Christ and John Murray’s Redemption, Accomplished and Applied. Here is profound theology, which led me to doxology. Very few academic, theological books have so gripped me that I could not wait for the next available hour to carry on reading.

As the title suggests, this is a book about our adoption – a neglected doctrine; not many sermons are heard on the subject (possibly because only a few biblical texts contain the actual word). However, in Part 1 of the book, which deals with the hermeneutics, history and etymology of adoption, Garner shows that there are many more occurrences of variants of the word and the idea of adoption than perhaps we realise. So throughout the book he uses the transliteration huiothesia as a catch-all substitute for our word adoption, and the supernatural reality of our adoption.

Sons in the Son has a particular contemporary relevance. Today there is confusion surrounding the role of fathers in families. Rampant feminism has intimidated the church into being afraid to emphasise the Fatherhood of God. However, Garner is not particularly concerned about restoring any perceived loss of the place of God the Father in our consciousness of the Trinity. His main thesis is that in God’s eternal purposes, the Father desired “sons” (i.e. brothers – and, if you like, “sisters”) for his Son, and that could only be accomplished by means of the Incarnation. “In short, in the sent Son of God, redemption attains its goal in adoption” (15). Adoption, therefore, is as much a part of Christology, as it is of Soteriology. Garner’s survey of adoption in historical theology demonstrates that neither Calvin, nor the Westminster Confession, neglected the subject. On the contrary, they very much emphasised our union with Christ, and that is reflected in the title of this book: “… specifically for Paul, it is adoption that serves as an organizing principle [for soteriology]” (33). Indeed, Calvin referred to God’s “Gospel of Adoption”.

Part 2 of the book is an “Exegetical and Theological Survey of the Key Texts”. In some sympathy with Murray, Garner divides his material into three parts: Adoption Purposed, Accomplished and Applied.

The first shows how even the pactum salutis (the Covenant of Redemption) between Father, Son and Holy Spirit has, as its focus, our “predestination unto adoption” (Eph 1:4-5): “…the holy purposes of sovereign election are realized only through Christ Jesus as Son of God, who effectuates and secures believers” (75).

How our adoption is accomplished is explained by an exegesis of Galatians 4:4-7. Again, the Son of God became incarnate “so that we might receive adoption as sons”.

Adoption Applied focuses on the Spirit’s work via three texts in Romans 8 and 9. The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of Adoption, “in whom believers are transferred, transformed and confirmed as sons in this Christological/ pneumatological age” (124). He is the “Eschatological Spirit”, enabling us to live in the already/not-yet kingdom, becoming more and more like the Son, who learned obedience. So, “identifying fully with their Elder Brother, glorified sons are first suffering sons” (127). Garner convincingly shows that virtually every reference to Spirit in Romans means Spirit (and not spirit), even in 8:15. But “in the epochal transition from covenant curse to covenant blessing, the Spirit of fear is now the Spirit of adoption for those in Christ” (123).

Garner shows how Christ’s resurrection is the key to the consummation of our adoption – “adoption reaches its telos with [our] bodily redemption” (141). This is an important emphasis, and a corrective to any gnostic tendency to treat the physical and material as insignificant.

Part 2 concludes with a very helpful exposition of Romans 9-11. These chapters are not a later insertion between chapters 8 and 12, but a necessary part of Paul’s flow of argument to show that God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel is unwavering, despite their disobedience. Paul has “missiological motives” (150) for interrupting his argument, before proceeding with his “therefore” of Romans 12:1. God’s purposes have always been to have many sons from many nations who are true sons of Abraham. Those who were “not my people” (Hosea’s gentiles) will be called “sons of the living God” (Rom 9:26). So Israel’s sonship is “typological”: “Adoption in Christ fills and fulfils ancient Israel’s corporate adoption as son” (156). This progressive development of sonship is not exclusively futuristic (as Piper has argued); it embraces Israel’s too, because of “covenantal continuity” (160) towards a “realized Christological adoption (true Israel) in the age of the Spirit” (161).

Some readers of this review will be better able to judge how Garner’s soteriological and eschatological (et al) frameworks influence his exposition of Romans. But this reviewer – a cautiously-amillennial reformed Baptist – is persuaded that he is “spot-on”.

Part 3 (the most demanding) examines how this eschatological adoption is secured by considering Christ’s own “progressive sonship”. We should not be alarmed by that phrase; he firmly rejects the ancient errors of adoptionism, upholding the high Christology of Chalcedon and Westminster. “God sent his Son” indeed presupposes a pre-existent sonship. However – taking issue with Donald Macleod’s “static sonship” – Garner argues for a “progressive functional dimension” to Christ’s sonship: “The pre-incarnate Son became the incarnate Son, and then at his resurrection was adopted as Son of God in power” (183). Christ’s resurrection (see Romans 1:3-4) – much more than his investiture – marked his adoption, and for those in Christ, the guarantee of theirs also. So, in “bringing many sons to glory”, union with Christ requires us to follow the “Calvary Road” of trustful obedience and cross-bearing.

Garner defends the use of huiothesia to describe our sonship, by showing that the word doesn’t exclusively describe the practice of Roman Imperial adoption. In Paul’s adoption (excuse pun!) of huiothesia the Holy Spirit may well be guiding him to allude to Roman adoption practices, showing how Christ’s adoption is higher, in a similar way that he adopts slavery and sporting metaphors.

So, where does adoption fit into the Ordo Salutis (order of salvation)? Whilst affirming that justification is indeed a sine qua non of our salvation, Garner warns of the danger of “forensic fixation”. He exposes the weaknesses of the New Perspective and Federal Vision, but cautions us not to exaggerate the priority of justification in the Ordo. He persuasively argues that our adoption as sons in the Son ought to have more emphasis: “Vindication by a Sovereign Judge does not make the acquitted a son” (234). It is our adoption which provokes even more love and gratitude.

This is a demanding academic book. If you are, like me, a theological pygmy, then you may need to read slowly so as not to miss any nuggets. But in case you did not quite grasp something, Garner helpfully re-iterates what he has just been saying by using complementary phraseology. He is also good at summarising where he has come so far in his thesis, so that you can confidently make progress through the book and understand. It will take me some time to reference all my underlinings, which will undoubtedly mean reading it again! Helpfully, Garner’s own references are on the same page below, so you don’t have to keep looking in the back of the book. The bibliography runs to 32 pages, referencing about 400 authors! I think it would be shame if the book’s complexity put people off getting to grips with the subject. For that reason, I wonder if Garner would produce a shorter, simpler, (popular?) abridged version?

I think the teaching in this book can be applied to many contemporary situations. Here are some that came to mind: a) It is not being misogynistic to use the Bible’s word sons, for it emphasises our joint inheritance (sons and daughters) of all that belongs to The Son; b) Muslims express their horror at the “blasphemous” thought of God giving up a Son to death, but because of his resurrection, he brings many sons to glory, who reflect that glory back to God; c) With my “missions hat” on, I pondered why the church is not willing to risk her best people to “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”? Could it be that we have not properly grasped what it means to be a son in the Son (see 274)?

My favourite quote is on page 311, where John Calvin’s own assertion, in his last will and testament, well sums up adoption’s importance: “I have no other defence or refuge for salvation that his gratuitous adoption, on which my salvation depends”.

Steven Green
Director of Mobilisation and Church Relations, ReachAcross


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